It’s almost midnight and I’m staring at a mostly dark Mediterranean. The lights of Holland America’s Nieuw Amsterdam shimmer silvery-white on the dark water as we glide almost silently towards Naples. You can hear the wash of the sea like the gentlest of spin cycles scrubbing the hull below. Earlier in the evening as we had sailed past Stromboli in the Aeolian Islands we spied three fiery orange veins of lava slowly pumping down the side of one of only three active volcanoes in Italy.
Dinner had been a formal affair in the ship’s Manhattan Dining Room before we’d hit BB King’s Blues Club for an evening of house band classics – although Pharrell Williams’s Happy made it into the repertoire like the one new song on a hits and memories radio station playing the best of the 1960s to 1990s and that one non-threatening song from a couple of months ago.
In eight hours we would be in Naples where my family’s plan was to spend most of the day in Sorrento before a late afternoon wander among the ruins of Pompeii. Yesterday we had spent a languid afternoon at a beach club on the island of Corfu after a morning exploring the old town and 16th century fortress.
Today had been a rare day at sea as we had sailed from Greece through the Straits of Messina between Sicily and the Italian mainland and were now darkly gliding our way up Italy’s western coast.
My day onboard had involved very little. I could have gone to the gym, the spa, movies or dance classes. Maybe I could have done a cooking or art class, played table tennis, basketball, video games or just swam in one of the ship’s two pools. Other options included cards, bingo, an AA meeting or a compu … ter lesson. Okay, I even lost me there.
Yep, there are old people onboard. If you look around all your pre-cruise prejudices are in play. Friends’ warnings of a floating bingo palace or RSL ring in your ears as you stand in line at a buffet behind a sandal and sock-clad person toting a plate filled with noodles, pasta, baked potato, fries and veal parmigiana. And yes, the person is monstrously overweight so maybe you think, “cut back on the veal or pasta or noodles or ALL OF IT”.
The thing about friends’ warnings about cruises is none of them have ever tried one. Sure, you’re not going to love everyone onboard but there are more than 2000 guests. It’s a small town and no-one likes everyone in a small town. Furthermore, we are not all going to like all the food or activities but there’s bucketloads of choice. Don’t like the idea of a whole deck devoted to serving an endless all-day buffet? Then don’t go there. There’s a café, fine dining options, a pizzeria, Asian restaurant, burger bar and more. Every day in every port the menu onboard changes ever so slightly to reflect a new location.
There are around 12 bars to choose from inside and out; innumerable quiet spaces for solitude and quiet reflection, and then there’s your cabin.
Comfortable and relatively roomy with a private veranda, it’s here I stand, leaning against the rail and peering into the night. It’s so surprisingly quiet and there are no other lights blinking in the distance. There’s a sense of complete solitude yet the Italian mainland is probably less than 20 miles away and the Mediterranean is not exactly off the beaten track.
The next morning I’m woken by a voice droning away about tomatoes and God. I remember waking and dragging myself onto a bus to Sorrento but I’d immediately fallen asleep. The reference to tomatoes and God was followed by an extended spiel about cameos and wooden furniture. Our lovely guide was keen to get us into a couple of local factories on our day tour. This is where the world of guided shore excursions and kickbacks to local commerce collide uneasily. She really should have stayed with tomatoes and deities.
There really was no need to spend any time near a local factory with the beauty of Sorrento or the amazingly preserved streets and buildings of Pompeii just a few steps away. We only had a few hours and we wanted to discover a lasting memory such as amazing gelato consumed while wandering the criss-crossing laneways of Sorrento or spying a fragment of a fresco – still filled with colour after nearly 2000 years in a Pompeii villa.
This is why I’ve fallen in love with cruising in a place like the Mediterranean – floating in a luxury resort and waking in a new port nearly every day. It’s a tasting menu of locations before you return to eat right across the menu at a later date.